“LOOPS OF LIES RE ‘SIGINT’” by David Habakkuk





A number of observations prompted by the report by the report by Marco Giannangeli in the ‘Sunday Express’ on 28 October, headlined ‘Khashoggi BOMBSHELL: Britain ‘KNEW of kidnap plot and BEGGED Saudi Arabia to abort plans’.

The report opens:

‘MURDERED journalist Jamal Khashoggi was about to disclose details of Saudi Arabia’s use of chemical weapons in Yemen, sources close to him said last night. The revelations come as separate intelligence sources disclosed that Britain had first been made aware of a plot a full three weeks before he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.’

Background is I think indispensable here.  For convenience, I will list points in numerical order.

  1. The role of disinformation about ‘SIGINT’ in ‘information operations’ appears to have been relatively limited in the UK. Curiously a great deal of it appears to have been channelled through Giannangeli and the ‘Express.’
  2. At the time of Ghouta, claims about ‘SIGINT’ played a central role in attempts to cover up the rather obvious points that tests on ‘physiological’ samples were irrelevant to establishing responsibility, and there was no cogent reason not to wait for the results of tests on ‘environmental’ samples.

Interestingly, however, such claims featured prominently in the 30 August ‘Government Assessment’ released from the White House, but not in the JIC document released the previous day. 

This discrepancy was picked up on 31 August by Craig Murray, who suggested that the explanation was that the supposed intercepts were disinformation originating with Mossad.  Drawing on his own experience as a former head of the FCO Cyprus Section, Murray suggested that, more or less, anything that there was there to be ‘hoovered up’ from Eastern Libya and Egypt through to the Caucasus was likely to have been by the Troodos facility, and the U.S. did not have a comparable one.  (This would make sense, given the ‘division of labour’ we know to happen within the ‘Five Eyes.’)

And the capabilities of Troodos would make it eminently possible that British intelligence had indeed acquired very relevant material about the Khashoggi killing.  There is however a crucial difference between picking up relevant material in advance, as Giannangeli is claiming the British had done by early September In relation to the incident, and retrieving relevant material once something has happened that makes one look for it.

  1. That Murray’s claim in relation to Ghouta that what was involved was disinformation originating out of Israel is right is now I think clear – I have circulated a comment I had posted on SST about this some time back to members of the ‘Working Group.’

In response to Murray’s 31 August post, Giannangeli produced a piece in the ‘Sunday Express’ the following day, headlined ‘Senior Syrian military chiefs tell captain: fire chemicals or be shot.’  It opened:

‘BRITISH intelligence chiefs have intercepted radio messages in which senior Syrian military chiefs are heard ordering the use of chemical weapons.

‘In one heated exchange, a regional commander was overheard demanding the captain of an artillery battery in a Government-held suburb of Damascus to fire chemical shells.

‘When the officer protested, he was told “in direct terms” that failure to comply would result in him facing a firing squad, and the chemical weapons were then fired.’

  1. When I posted the SST comment, I cited a report on the ‘Daily Caller’ site on 28 August by Kenneth Timmerman, which purported to provide an account of what the Israeli Unit 8200 had actually intercepted. Since posting it, I have come across an account given by Yossef Bodansky on 10 September 2013, which is compatible with the earlier account but provides more information:

‘A closer study of the much-touted electronic intercepts proves that Assad and his inner-circle were stunned by the news of the chemical attack. When the first reports of the chemical attack surfaced, a very senior Syrian military officer called in panic the artillery commander of the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army which is under the direct command of Maher al-Assad.

‘The senior officer wanted to know if the brigade had fired any chemical munitions in contravention of the explicit orders of the top leadership not to do so. The artillery commander flatly denied firing any rocket, missile, or artillery. He added that he had already checked and confirmed that all his munitions were accounted for, and invited the general staff to send officers to verify on their own that all brigade’s munitions were in safe storage. The senior officers took the commander to task and he was interrogated for three days as a thorough inventory of the munitions was carried out. This artillery officer was returned to duty as it was confirmed beyond doubt that no munitions were missing. (Since there was no other chemical-capable unit in the area, the claim of rogue officers should identify from where and how they had obtained chemical munitions.)’

The Giannangeli story reads as thought it might be the product of an uncritical retailing of a melodramatic rewriting of the actual facts so as to turn them round to incriminate the Syrian government by someone aware of the actual facts. 

This would be compatible with the suggestion that in fact the Troodos facility had picked up the same conversations as Unit 8200, although that does not mean that they would necessarily have come to anyone’s attention prior to the incident.

  1. Following the breaking of the Salisbury incident, Giannangeli was again used to challenge ‘intelligence’ supposed to establish that there was ‘smoking gun’ evidence of Russian responsibility. His story on 9 April was headlined: ‘REVEALED: The bombshell Russian message intercepted on DAY of Skripal poisonings,’ and opened: ‘AN ELECTRONIC message to Moscow sent on the day former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury included the phrase “the package has been delivered”.’

Supposedly, this ‘prompted a young Flight Lieutenant to recall a separate message that had been intercepted and discounted on the previous day.’ The messages were ‘understood to have formed “just one part” of the intelligence packet which later allowed Prime Minister Theresa May to state it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the attacks.’

These prompted one ‘sushi’, in a series on the incident on the ‘Vineyard of the Saker’ blog, to hark back to Craig Murray’s discussion of Troodos, and comment:

‘How many messages do you think are processed by this facility in the course of one hour? Six? Twelve? Twenty-two? How about Twenty-two thousand? Perhaps two or three times that number. And a flight lieutenant picked an incriminating message out of that volume of traffic?

‘It is doubted that any message traffic is processed on Cyprus. It is more likely that the entire take is transmitted back to GCHQ in Cheltenham via a fibre optic link. There exabytes of take are processed, not by a bored flight lieutenant, but by banks of high speed computers.

‘Clearly someone in Cheltenham has committed a programming error. Anyone with any knowledge of secret communications knows that the code phrase used to confirm a murder in Salisbury is “small pizza, no anchovies.”’

  1. This takes one back to the discussion of the claims made in the ‘Government Assessment’ and elsewhere by ‘sasa wawa’ – whom it now seems overwhelmingly likely is the Israeli technology entrepreneur and former United 8200 employee Saar Wilf.

A central point he made then was that there are three distinct kinds of analysis of the vast mass of material which contemporary ‘SIGINT’ facilities can intercept and store.  One is where crucial messages can be selected so as to give ‘ex ante’ warning of an event;  another where a search through stored messages is made, which is not uncommonly in attempting to understand some unanticipated event;  a third where a search is made, in order to ‘cherry pick’ material in favour of an interpretation decided upon in advance.

In relation to Ghouta, the point ‘sasa wawa’ – aka Saar Wilf, and perhaps also ‘sushi’ – was making was that it had been attempted to suggest that the exercise performed had been of the first kind, when it had clearly been of the third.  As the ‘doctored’ version appeared on 24 August, it would seem quite likely that the – accurate – version on which it was based was the product of the second kind of exercise. 

In this case, it would be unsurprising if the same kind of exercise had given GCHQ accurate information about what had happened on the same timeline.  This would make it easy to understand why the JIC might not have wanted to make claims about ‘SIGINT’, given that there could be too many people who knew they were false and might at some point let the information leak.

When Murray put the proverbial cat among the pigeons by pointing to the actual truth, this precipitated some kind of response.  But, perhaps deliberately, it was one that avoided putting GCHQ too much centre stage, both in the way the story was credited to ‘a highly placed RAF source’, and the Troodos facility characterised as an RAF one, and in that the story appeared in the Express.

Precisely the same happened in relation to the Salisbury incident.  A point which ‘sushi’ was picking up was that the attempt to put the RAF centre stage led to an obvious absurdity.  What was involved here was, once again, a blurred confusion between an attempt to suggest that intelligence on an incident was available, as it were, in ‘real time’, and an attempt to suggest that it had triggered the kind of investigation which could, as it were, identify needles in an haystack.

The clear suggestion in the contemptuous remarks by ‘sushi’ was that what was actually involved was simple fabrication.

  1. Also worth putting into the picture here may be the mass surveillance programme launched by GCHQ in 2012, and the controversy which was aroused following the revelation by Edward Snowden in June 2013 that both the U.S. and the U.K. were running this kind of programme. Also revealed was the fact that the NSA had paid GCHQ over £100m between 2009 and 2012.

The implications of these programmes can be seen more clearly in the light of some of the arguments that ‘sasa wawa’ and ‘sushi’, be they the same person or different ones, are making.  Precisely because technology now makes it possible both to ‘hoover up’ extraordinary amounts of data, and to search through it very precisely, it is obviously eminently possible that doing both these things can  help identify terrorists and other malefactors.

However, the potentialities for abuse are obvious, and massive.  In addition to the obvious ones, a bizarre situation is created, where it is evident that GCHQ must be able to access information about ‘false flags’ which they need to suppress – and there is thus a logic impelling the organisation to become an important player in ‘information operations.’  In an organisation could be expected to have accurate information that if made public would torpedo such operations, the pressures to corrupt it are liable to become very strong.

  1. At the time of Ghouta, Robert Hannigan, who had begun his intelligence career as a key figure in Tony Blair’s – successful – peacemaking efforts in Northern Ireland, and appears to have been what one might call a long-term Blair ‘trusty’, was Director-General of Defence and Intelligence, where his responsibilities included sponsorship of MI6 and GCHQ. He was also, unsurprisingly, a longstanding member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which he had chaired in 2011-12.

The Director of GCHQ at that time was Iain Lobban, who was a long-service professional with the organisation.  In the course of 2014, the controversy triggered by Snowden’s revelations led to his standing down.  It was announced in April that Hannigan would replace him, and he took over in November that year.

It may or not be relevant that Lobban subsequently joined the Holdingham International Advisory Board.  This is part of the Holdingham/Hakluyt network which Yaacov Apelbaum, drawing on the kind of search technology which GCHQ and NSA are clearly now using extensively, asserts is at the heart of ‘Russiagate.’  Among others so involved is the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, whose supposed drunken conversation with George Papadopoulos played an important role in ‘Russiagate.’

As Apelbaum’s discussion makes clear, the capabilities of programmes which can search video material, not collected by governments but available to them, have also been increasing by leaps and bounds.  In relation to the Salisbury incident, in addition to the strong likelihood that GCHQ does have relevant intercepts which tell a different story to the one which Giannangeli puts forward, there is the certainty that there is a mass of CCTV footage from Salisbury. 

It is not clear to me which department is in charge of the analysis of this material but it it is likely to have produced a great of information, both about the movements of the Skripals, but also about the Russians at whom the finger of suspicion has been pointed, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.  One can reasonably infer from the fact that so little has been produced that it is does not support the ‘narrative’ put forward by the British authorities.

  1. One now, I think, has some context with the help of which one may be able to make better sense of the new Giannangeli report.

There are ample indications that with the breaking of story of Khashoggi’s murder, as with that of the poisoning of the Skripals, and that of the dossier supposedly authored by Christopher Steele, among others incidents, had problems constructing a viable ‘narrative.’

What Khashoggi’s murder and the Steele dossier have in common – and distinguishes them from the poisoning of the Skripals – is the clear initial uncertainty about what ‘narrative’ was appropriate.

In the case of the dossier, there was very clearly an initial uncertainty was to whether the best course of action was, as it were, to hang Steele out to dry, or to defend him.

In relation to Mohammed bin Salman, there seems to have been a parallel uncertainty – with the unpredictability of the implications of alternative courses, and the possible risks, being an order of magnitude greater.

A report by Mark Curtis on Middle East Eye on 25 October may – or may not – be to the point.  It opens:

‘As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) comes under increasing pressure over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, policymakers in Washington and London have one overriding priority: to preserve the House of Saud, a military and economic ally in which they have invested so much. Yet, if Mohammed bin Salman cannot be retained, the UK and US will likely work to ensure some face-saving transfer of power to one of his relatives.’

Some reason to believe that this possibility has been at least under consideration in London and Washington is provided by a Guardian report on 19 October by Patrick Wintour of remarks by Sir John Sawers, who was head of MI6 from November 2009 to November 2014, in which he unambiguously accused Mohammed bin Salman.

A key paragraph:

‘He predicted that members of the Saudi royal family, business community and conservative religious clerics will take advantage of the crown prince’s involvement to undermine him. “There will be a reaction inside Saudi Arabia to this dreadful killing and there will be some correction.”’

  1. If such a strategy has been contemplated, there are obvious questions. One is whether in fact the position of MBS has been so weakened that he can be removed, and – equally important – whether such removal could be done by means of a ‘face-saving transfer of power to one of his relatives.’  Involved here are calculations, not simply about the strength of the target’s position, but his own assessment of whether he can afford to allow himself to be toppled, without risking some version of the fate he meted out to Khashoggi.

At that point, a question may perhaps arise as to whether, if in fact people in London and Washington were to attempt to instigate his replacement, the fact that MBS must have a large amount of compromising material about them might not become relevant.  (A reprise of the situation with Berezovsky, in a different context, perhaps.)

  1. It what Murray says about the capabilities of Troodos is correct, which I think likely, it is also likely that it did send GCHQ a lot of material relevant to the Khashoggi killing.

However, one comes back to the point I made at the outset, about the need to keep in mind the distinction between material which is recognised in ‘real time’, and provides advance warning, and material identified thereafter by targeted researches through a vast mass of intercepts.

It is, in my view, not all that probable that the claim that British intelligence was afoot in the first week of September is well-founded.  Given the risks involved, one might then have thought that an attempt would have been made to prevent a situation which could clearly possibly end not just in murder, but in a murder that was very embarrassing for a lot of people. 

If one wanted to do this, obviously one would have wanted to bring the Americans in – which is precisely what it is now suggested that, for some incomprehensible reason, the British failed to do.  Stronger warnings could have been given to the Saudis – and it might indeed also have been sensible quietly to warn Khashoggi.

What however the notion that the British knew what was happening makes possible to put a ‘spin’ on the affair which reversed the original suggestion by Sawers – so it is suggested that there is no ‘smoking gun’ incriminating MBS personally.  This, I suspect, is misinformation designed to cover the contingency that the notion of toppling him is unfeasible.

  1. It then becomes necessary to, at least partially, excuse the murder. This is done by calling into question the ‘narrative’ according to which Khashoggi was ‘just a progressive freedom fighting journalist’, and was murdered for that reason.

This is done by bringing up Khashoggi’s history of links with jihadists – and there appears to be a suggestion that disagreements on this point may have accounted for the supposed failure to inform the U.S.  So the story also operates to distance the MI6 from support for jihadists.

  1. The final twist is the suggestion that the murder arose because Khashoggi was going to produce information that the Saudis were using phosphorus in Yemen.

As it happens, I have not seen reports of Iranian claims that the Saudis have been supplying ingredients which can be used to produce sarin in Yemen.  We have very strong reasons to believe that they were engaged in doing precisely this in Syria, and very likely still are.

It would be very interesting to see what in fact, if anything, the Iranians have claimed.  And, of course, it would not in the least surprise if they produced their own ‘information operations’ in response to those practised against them.

The suggestion that the Saudis have used phosphorus adds nothing material to the long list of atrocities in which they have been involved in Yemen.

It does however mean that HdBG can be brought in to attempt to discredit the two accusations of which MI6 is clearly very seriously afraid.  Of these, the first is that Khashoggi ‘was murdered simply for being a journalist critical of the regime.’  This is a possibility which is liable to stick in the craw, as it were, even of writers for and readers of the Guardian.

The second is that the Saudis may have been, and may still be, involved in supplying sarin ‘precursors’ to people.

  1. On a partially but not totally unrelated topic, ‘Publius Tacitus’ posted, a few days ago, a very interesting piece on new evidence which has been coming out supporting the claim that the materials from the DNC published by ‘WikiLeaks’ were the product, not of an hack by the Russians, but of a leak by the organisation’s staffer, Seth Rich.

In comments, I made the suggestion that a lot of evidence might fit into a coherent picture, if one hypothesised that the leak was originally identified, not by monitoring of information coming out at the Washington end, but rather of monitoring of information coming into Assange, which would almost certainly have been conducted, not by the NSA and CIA, but by GCHQ and MI6.  Among relevant information, of course, is the surprise resignation of Hannigan in January last year.

David Habakkuk 29.109.2018

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